Sixty-five years ago, my grandparents set sail for the port of Haifa aboard the Exodus 1947. They were a newlywed couple, pregnant with their first child and fleeing the ashes of post-war Europe. On July 18, 1947, when the British tried to board the vessel, they resisted. The Royal navy rammed the boat, and my grandparents were transferred a British prison ship. When they were told to disembark in France, my grandparents refused to go ashore anywhere but Palestine. They were forced to return to the British-occupied zone in Germany, but were eventually smuggled into Palestine by the Haganah.
As fate would have it, they arrived in Palestine just in time for the War of Independence. My grandfather had been a guerrilla fighter with the partisan resistance in White Russia and a combat soldier with the Red Army. Since combat veterans were in short supply, he was sent directly to the front lines. My grandmother, quite pregnant with my uncle, was sent directly to the maternity ward. They spent the next sixty years arguing over who had the harder time of it during the War of Independence.
We’ve made a great deal of progress in the sixty-five years since British sailors heartlessly prevented a boatload of refugees from returning to their ancestral homeland. My sister now serves in the Israeli navy at the Haifa naval base, guarding the very port where the Royal Navy loaded my grandparents into prison ships. I’m at the University of Haifa, where I spend six hours a day studying the revived Hebrew language with over a hundred students from forty countries and five continents. At the same time, thousands of Israeli students- twenty percent of whom are Arabs, are busy taking their final exams and enjoying the sun. If seeing is believing, then I truly believe that Israel has become a beacon of Jewish pride, pluralism, and innovation.
While we can take pride in the progress we’ve made over the past sixty-five years, we must recognize that this progress is extremely fragile. The Jewish State faces enormous challenges from within. Israeli society is deeply divided along ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious lines. This factionalism results in a rancorous public discourse and political paralysis. Moreover, the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians continues to divide Israelis along ideological lines. While a majority of Israelis still support a two-state resolution of the conflict, a significant and vocal minority continues to oppose it. Meanwhile, the excessive expansion of the settlement enterprise in the West Bank is slowly undermining the belief that a two-state solution is actually possible. As the conflict continues to fester with no end in sight, the ideological polarization of Israeli society can be expected to continue.
In addition to Israel’s internal difficulties, it must confront an increasingly worrisome situation abroad. The community of nations which voted to create a Jewish state is no longer sympathetic to the Zionist enterprise. In the late 1940’s, the international press’s courageous reporting rallied world opinion against the injustices perpetrated against my grandparents and the rest of the Jewish people as they were denied refuge in their ancestral homeland. Today, the world media is cynically and effectively manipulated in order to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state.
Despite the challenges from within and without, the state of affairs today is not nearly as desperate and as dire as it was when my grandparents boarded a rickety old boat and set off for the Land of Israel. Israel can overcome any obstacle, so long as a divisive and fragmented discourse is replaced by a search for consensus and common ground. It’s time to take off our ideological blinders and realize that, just like those hopeful and idealistic survivors on Exodus 1947, we are all in the same boat.